From Parent Volunteer to Legend on Peoria's South Side

Long before the city of Peoria named a street after her, Aurthur Mae Perkins 82 M.A. 90 began her storied career in education as a parent volunteer at her children’s school.

The district soon offered her a full-time position at the school based on her exceptional work tutoring students, but Perkins wasn’t qualified. She didn’t have a high school diploma.

The rest is history; the mother of six children eventually became a long-tenured Peoria school principal. Her 11-year stint leading Harrison School even attracted a visit from then U.S. presidential hopeful, George W. Bush, on the campaign trail in 2000.

Even though she had doubts at nearly every stage of her non-traditional path, Perkins heeded the urging of her friends, family and instructors to pursue a career in education. She earned her GED and then enrolled at Bradley to study early childhood education. Perkins was a popular figure: her classmates would ask for advice and saw her as a mentor more than a peer.

“I was old enough to be their mother,” she said, noting she was 44 at her graduation.

It was the little touches from her professors at Bradley Perkins cherished; they also helped her persevere in attaining her degrees. All these years later, Perkins prominently displays a gift from Professor of Education, Emeritus, George Harrison, in her home: a custom plate adorned with the names of her children.

She never recalled telling Harrison about her kids, but it left an indelible mark on her about the importance of being attentive in a mentorship role.

Those interpersonal skills and leadership qualities made Perkins an ideal principal after teaching only a few years. A teacher’s union leader once asked why he never received any complaints from teachers at her building.

“You keep them happy and respect them, and show them that they're respected and loved, then they'll perform for you,” Perkins said.

Harrison School — where Perkins spent her entire career as teacher and principal — is located in Peoria’s South Side. Virtually all its students live in poverty. But Harrison students routinely tested higher in reading than other schools during Perkins’ tenure.

She said the phonemic awareness approach she instituted drove impressive results. But she also credited her teaching staff, who understood her message of empathy and high expectations.

“I don’t want you to see these children as students, you see them as your own children,” Perkins told her teachers. “How would you want your child to be taught?”

A memorable moment for Perkins occurred just last year, when one of her former teachers lobbied the city of Peoria to name a street next to the downtown branch of the Peoria Public Library after her. At the ceremony, Perkins saw that same group of Harrison teachers she led for 15 years grouped together in the audience.

“I saw them gathered there, and I started bawling like a baby.”.

–Thomas Bruch